Federal workers, reeling under RIFs, furloughs, benefit cuts and increasing attacks on their government service, announced yesterday they are organizing a nationwide public relations campaign to try to improve their image with the American people.

Protesting what they called the negative stereotyping and "scapegoating" of government employes, a coalition of 17 professional groups representing federal workers said they had formed a Public Employes Roundtable to try to educate private citizens about the dedication, quality and talents of civil servants on whom they depend.

The coalition invoked the names of recent astronauts, 51 of the 52 Iranian hostages, Air Florida crash hero Leonard Skutnik III and U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib -- federal workers all -- to emphasize the scope of public employes' achievements.

But despite such accomplishments, the coalition complained in an emotionally charged news conference, government employes continue to be the butt of jokes and slurs that are affecting worker morale, driving top officials from federal service and jeopardizing government stability and national security.

"The attack on federal employes, this notion that they are lazy, shiftless, overpaid bureaucrats, is a damn lie," said G. Jerry Shaw, president of the Senior Executive Service and the chairman of the newly formed coalition.

He blamed the poor image of federal workers on politicians and administrations of both parties who he said have made government employes a convenient scapegoat for national problems. And he said the public must be reminded that federal workers "are not responsible for making policy -- only for carrying it out."

Shaw said the coalition, which has contracted with a public relations firm, hopes to raise $250,000 to finance a speakers' bureau that could carry the group's pro-federal worker campaign, including an upbeat slide show, to local media, civic groups and other organizations outside the Washington area that might not be as familiar with the achievements of government employes.

The money will be largely solicited from the Washington business community and in other areas where there is a high concentration of federal employment. A representative of Government Employees Insurance Co. helped kick off the drive yesterday with a $1,000 contribution.

There are approximately 2.7 million employes in the government's civilian workforce, about 345,000 of whom work in the Washington area.

The planned counterattack against critics of government workers drew support from several members of Congress who represent federal constituencies. They also rallied around a resolution sponsored by northern Virginia Republican Rep. Stan Parris that would make Jan. 17, 1983 -- the 100th anniversary of the creation of the civil service system -- Public Employes Appreciation Day. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) is sponsoring the same resolution in the Senate.

Attending the roundtable's news conference in the Capitol, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) said those who doubt the contributions of federal workers need only "take a trip around the Beltway" in Washington. He said they could see first-hand the achievements of government employes at the National Institutes of Health, the Agricultural Research Center, the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Patuxent Wild Life Center.

"Those are civil servants of the United States, members of the most remarkable institution in the world," Mathias said. "We should be proud of it, we should preserve it . . . and if it's not crass to say so, we should pay it."

Founders of the coalition, which includes the Federal Managers Association, the American Foreign Service Association, Federally Employed Women Inc. and the Professional Managers Associations, said they were concerned about cutbacks in benefits and the fact that many federal workers are falling behind the private sector in pay comparability.

But efforts to fight for improved pay and benefits, they said, won't be successful until the public has a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the accomplishments of their public servants.

And a good place to start turning things around, suggested Rep. Cecil Heftel (D-Hawaii), is in Congress and the White House. "We all know how important they federal workers are," he said. "Let's tell the American people that and stop using them as political fodder during election time."

Unions representing federal workers won't be joining the roundtable, Shaw said, because they believe they can be more effective within their own organizations. However, he said his group hopes to coordinate its efforts with theirs.